Thursday, June 1, 2006

A non intellectual's thoughts on international economics, workforce migration, hypocrisy and the new Pearl Jam album.

First Dear Reader, let me give you a bit of background. I am not a great intellectual and I didn't go to University or study economics. So, much of what I am about to write may be the stuff of basic economic theory or it may just be plain wrong. But, it is all my own work and it is the summary of many different trains of thought I have had over many years.

In the last 30 years I have witnessed the phenomenon of the vast migration of workers from Sri Lanka to many of the Middle Eastern countries and it is something that I have pondered and cogitated on a lot. I am particularly interested in this because many members of my family in SL have done this but also because, in the 1950s, my Father emigrated from SL to the UK for the same reason, opportunity.

The jobs that have been filled in these Middle Eastern states are those that cannot, or will not, be filled by "locals", for a variety of reasons. They are often those of domestic servants, drivers, shop assistants and just wouldn't be done by many of the oil rich residents. So there is a huge demand for a cheap and willing workforce, preferably from a country with a very low cost of living. Like Sri Lanka. Many Sri Lankans see the opportunity to earn relatively massive salaries and jump at it and embrace it, knowing that the same thing is unlikely to occur in their own war torn homeland. Or "ceasefire stricken" homeland as the case may be.

In many ways the concept is a perfect win - win scenario. One country gains a willing and plentiful workforce, prepared to work for a pittance of a salary. The other country gains much needed foreign capital, a better standard of living for many of its nationals, reduced unemployment and lots of TVs and stereos carried in as hand luggage! Most of these things can clearly have long term positive effects to the country and are surely good. I have relatives who have worked in the Middle East and generated wealth for their immediate family. Much of that wealth has been invested in education which in turn can help to move people up the social strata. Naturally this can aid future generations in getting better employment, thereby reducing the need for these generations to seek employment abroad. All assuming that the work is available in Sri Lanka, which is by no means certain.

But this perfect win - win scenario simply does not exist. There are some very big negatives that should be put into the pot, to see if it swims. There are many documented cases of housemaids and servants being abused in every possible way, even killed in the most extreme cases.

There was a story recently of a maid who was allegedly raped at BIA, while waiting to get on a plane to go to the Middle East. If I remember correctly the lady was reluctant to say anything about the rape until she reached her destination, for fear of losing the employment, such is the lure of the "opportunity". There are also stories in abundance of dodgy employment agencies, trading on poeple's eagerness to secure this type of employment. Many of these agencies offer promises of jobs and riches in return for cash. By the time the poor victim has parted with their money and realised that there is no real job offer usually the agency is long gone, as is the cash.

The social impact on children who are separated from either one, or often both, of their parents for an extended period must be drastic. This will be countered to an extent by the positives provided by the income derived from the employment, but who is to say that the end result is good or bad?

Is it a sad dichotomy that many of the migrant workers will be treated as the lowest of the low in their country of employment and they will be willing to accept this in order to elevate their status at home. Several years ago whilst travelling from Colombo to Dubai I witnessed an Arab man taking a group of housemaids from Sri Lanka to Dubai. What happened to them after Dubai I don't know but his treatment and demeanour towards them from CMB to Dubai was a pathetic sight. They seemed barely more than a herd of animals to him, he treated them with disdain and showed no respect whatsoever. Maybe I am just naive but I found the scene appalling and sickening.

With all my muddled thoughts on this I have reached no conclusions. I am lucky to have had a somewhat privileged middle class upbringing, partly because my Father came here to the UK in the 1950s in search of opportunity , which is precisely what many Sri Lankans are now seeking in the Middle East. So who am I to comment or criticise? Have a read of the following post and the comments it has attracted in particular. It made me think that perhaps I shouldn't comment on anyone who tries to better themselves when I haven't known true hardship or poverty in my life.

Market forces always win in our capitalist world and eventually there will be a shortage of labour in Sri Lanka. Salaries will increase, people will stay and millions of Sri Lankans will make shed loads of money from the huge Sri Lankan oil fields. Arabs, whose own oil wells will be totally dry, will be imported by the bucketload to become servants to the Sri Lankans.

I was spurned to write this after reading the following post on another blog. It is about the fact that Sri Lankan companies are starting to employ Indian executives rather than Sri Lankan ones, as they cost less. Ironic isn't it!

Oh, the new eponymous album by Pearl Jam takes a few listens, but it's excellent.


S said...

Sarvodaya are always looking after children who have been abused/neglected by their alcoholic fathers/corrupt relatives.

The effects of an absent mother/a relationship where the father resents the mother, aren't good on a family.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

No, I am sure they're not, but the positives of the material gains from overseas are clearly a big attraction.